Mill of the Month takes a closer look at two small villages

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Mansfield - posted Tue., Jul. 30, 2013
Vicky Wetherell talks about Merrow and its mill during the July installment of the Mill of the Month series, sponsored by the Willimantic Textile and History Museum. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Vicky Wetherell talks about Merrow and its mill during the July installment of the Mill of the Month series, sponsored by the Willimantic Textile and History Museum. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Standing on a narrow bridge overlooking the Willimantic River in the village of Merrow (within the town of Mansfield), Vicky Wetherell was momentarily distracted from her discussion of mill history by a great blue heron fishing in the water below. As the president of the Willimantic River Alliance, Wetherell is heavily involved in the conservation and promotion of the river.

As a result of the efforts of the WRA, the Last Green Valley, the Connecticut DEEP and others, the Willimantic River has undergone a complete transformation over the past 40 years. Widely considered akin to an open sewer in the 1960s, the Willimantic River became the focus of intensive cleanup efforts. In 2012, a 21-mile stretch of the river was designated as a National Recreation Water Trail.  

The mills along the Willimantic were among the greatest contributors to its pollution. It was one of these mills that Wetherell had been enlisted to discuss on July 27 in the village of Merrow. Wetherell is currently working on a book on the mills of Merrow, and was asked to lead the first half of a Mill of the Month tour for the Windham Textile and History Museum. This was the fifth tour of a year-long series.

“This place looks pretty bucolic now,” said Wetherell, as cicadas buzzed in the background. “Believe me, this place was humming in the 1800s.” Anywhere there was running water, said Wetherell, “People were flocking for power.”

In 1810, the Perry Brothers established a gunpowder mill on the Willimantic in Merrow. There was a dam built a quarter of a mile upriver, and a diversion canal which took approximately one year to build by hand, with the assistance of teams of oxen. Making gunpowder “was a fairly dangerous job,” said Wetherell.

Joseph Merrow purchased the mill in 1815, along with 35 surrounding acres. Business was booming, helped along by the War of 1812 and widespread hunting. But in 1826 the mill blew up. Merrow, who lived in East Hartford, was “back in business quickly,” said Wetherell. But in 1830 there was another explosion, which ended the gunpowder business for Merrow.

By 1838 he had refocused his business to knitting, received a patent for a knitting machine, and rebuilt the mill. Business was again booming, with the Civil War producing plenty of demand for socks and other knit items. Merrow’s company invented a machine that overstitched the edge of socks, preventing unraveling. “This was the machine that carried them to fame and fortune,” said Wetherell. The Merrow machine company is still in business, and the practice of overstitching, “Is still referred to as Merrowing worldwide,” said Wetherell.

Many of the buildings that arose around the Merrow mill are still there, though the mill itself burnt down and went out of business for good in 1887. A large, yellow house originally served as a tenement for mill workers. Another former tenement underwent many different incarnations, becoming a restaurant at one point, and recently refurbished as the new home of the Mansfield Academy of Dance.

The second half of the July 27 mill tour focused on the site of the Eagleville Dam and the several different incarnations of the mill that once stood there. According to historian Bev York, the Willimantic Cotton Manufacturing Company established the mill in 1814. The Eagleville Manufacturing Company took over the operation in 1822, conferring the name of Eagleville upon the village. The mill changed over to rifle production during the Civil War, then switched back to textiles. At one point, the mill produced inner soles for shoes. A 1955 flood washed out much of the dam, also disrupting local railroad service, and put an end to production for good. In 1956, according to York, the Eagleville Fire Department razed the mill.

The next installment of the Mill of the Month Program will be held Saturday, Aug. 24, at 4 p.m. Led by Bev York, the tour will visit the Gurleyville Grist Mill Site, owned by Joshua’s Trust along the Fenton River. Registration is suggested by calling 860-456-2178. Meet at The Grist Mill, on Stonemill Road. 

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